Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Try Something Different. Go North -- Very Far North -- For A Winter Break.

Forget the Caribbean! For a real break from the urban winter blues of damp cold, slush, and a transport system that fails with the merest hint of a snow flake do something completely different. Head even further north, above the Arctic Circle. 

OK, I have to admit that my wife’s initial enthusiasm for a trip to northern Norway in February was a bit muted – especially as we had been talking about Florence. But she began to warm to the idea – as it were -  after studying the attractions of Oslo and learning that Tromso –north of the Arctic Circle – offered more than igloos and dog sleds.

Oslo turned out to a real treat - full of great museums like the Viking ship museum, good restaurants, good public transportation, and a stunning opera house where we went to see the ballet Giselle. Ticket prices were moderate, and the opera house is intelligently organized for a relaxed meal before the performance. Furthermore, the temperature in Oslo was not bad at all – nowhere near as cold as my home town in New England where the thermostat dropped to -20◦C. I know it’s a cliché, but everyone we encountered in Norway spoke beautiful English. That’s useful because nothing you studied in school even remotely resembles Norwegian. Maybe the Swedes and Danes can understand it, but I seriously doubt that anyone else will have a clue what they’re talking about.
Royal palace in Oslo
The Gokstad ship in the Viking Ship Museum
The Oslo opera house

The 1 ½ hour flight from Oslo to Tromso, a small city at 69◦N latitude on an island in one of Norway’s innumerable fiords, was uneventful. However, as we descended over frozen, snow covered mountains and a frigid fiord instead of the graceful domes and Arno River of the long-promised Florence my wife’s face took on a certain ‘You owe me – big time’ expression. However, things began to look up as soon as we landed.
"This doesn't look like Florence!"
The first surprise after a short bus trip from the airport to our hotel was the number of tourists – including large groups of Chinese -- in town. Locals said that tourism was up at least 50% this year and they were having trouble finding staff to deal with the crush of visitors. When you consider that Norway has a population of only five million people – less than half the population of the city of Istanbul alone – it is not surprising that much of the staff in hotels and restaurants comes from nearby Sweden. Maybe tourists have decided to forgo the ‘charms’ of the current political climate in the Mediterranean region and flock to a place where the most frightening event might be a couple of reindeer ambling down the street.

In addition to tourism, Tromso’s economy benefits from the presence of a university, a polar research center, and good fishing throughout the surrounding fiords. Tromso also has become somewhat of a conference center. Several of the hotels were hosting conferences of companies and non-profit groups from all over Norway. While the conference attractions may not rival Las Vegas, there is plenty for the attendees to do outside the meetings.

 Like Oslo, this surprisingly sophisticated arctic town has very good restaurants, fascinating museums, and at least one good modern art gallery. As you might imagine the restaurants feature a lot of fish – cod in all possible permutations, haddock, halibut, multiple varieties of herring, and enormous crabs. Meat is mostly local lamb and reindeer. Decent wine lists are supplemented with good whiskeys from relatively nearby Scotland.

Daytime activities include whale-watching, snow mobile journeys, cross-country skiing, dog sleds, visiting the native Sami people and feeding reindeer, or hiring a car to see the dramatic scenery that dominates the region. During the night you can also choose to drive to a distant base camp where the Northern Lights are more visible. This requires a bit of patience because the lights seldom appear before 10:30 – 11 pm.
The Sami reindeer herders
Mariella opted for feeding the reindeer, meeting the Sami, and sampling some of their reindeer stew. I chose the more sedentary whale watching, and after a couple of hours of a beautiful boat trip along the fiords we arrived near the picturesque island of Sommaroy where numerous humpback and fin whales were lazily searching for food. Occasionally they would reward us with a flourish of their huge tails and dive beneath the surface. Other times I was conscious of being in a fairly small boat as they circled us sometimes blowing geysers high into the frozen air.
Whale diving for food near Sommaroy
Northern Lights brighten the night sky
On the way back to Tromso we passed a Norwegian submarine slipping out to sea, and I was reminded of the life-and-death struggles on these icy waters during World War II as allied convoys struggled to bring vital supplies around the northern tip of Norway to beleaguered Russian ports. As if the natural elements of violent storms, wild seas and ice weren’t bad enough the convoys faced constant threats of German U-boat attacks and bombers flying from fields in occupied Norway. Standing on the slippery deck of our small boat early in February even in the calm water of the fiord, it didn’t take a great deal of imagination to appreciate the bravery and endurance of the mariners who made that perilous trip.
Ice forming on WW II convoys around northern Norway
The austere beauty of the arctic may not initially appeal to everyone whose idea of a winter holiday is a Caribbean beach and drinks with umbrellas. But those willing to leave flip-flops and bikinis at home and venture north of the 66th parallel will – to borrow a phrase from Gertrude Stein – find that there is a there there, some place special, some place you won’t quickly forget as soon as the plane brings you home.

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